How much notice should we take of religion in the public sphere? My question is prompted by three rather different developments in recent weeks.
First, is England and Wales ready for its three most senior judicial posts to be held by Jews? Lord Neuberger becomes president of the UK Supreme Court on October 1 and Lord Dyson replaces him as Master of the Rolls. Might a third Jewish judge take over as Lord Chief Justice next year?
I rather doubt it. Although Lord Justice Leveson may be a strong candidate, he is not seen as the favourite. Non-Jewish lawyers are not at such a disadvantage in achieving high judicial office that they need to invoke the Equality Act of 2010.
But if being Jewish is no handicap among UK lawyers, it may well be for their clients. Julius Meinl is a British banker of Austrian descent. In April 2009, he was arrested at the state prosecutor's office in Vienna after attending voluntarily for interview. As a condition of bail, he was required to pay an extraordinary €100 million into court — reputedly a world record in any jurisdiction. Although the Austrian authorities have spent the past five years investigating alleged market manipulation by a property fund in which Meinl was not directly involved, he is the only person to have been arrested as a result of the investigation. Nobody has been charged and Meinl's bail money has not been returned.
Complaining about the delay in dealing with his case, his lawyer Lord Goldsmith QC recently told the Foreign Secretary, William Hague: "There is a strong suspicion that the [Austrian] authorities have been reacting to public pressure from some quarters, which in turn is coloured by Mr Meinl's Jewish family background." The businessman's family fled from Austria in 1938 because Meinl's grandfather had married a woman of Jewish descent.
When I reported this elsewhere last month, an apparently well-informed reader referred me to reports that Meinl had subsequently been sued by the property fund's Israeli owners. Was I claiming that Jews, too, were motivated by anti-Semitism? Logically, of course, it is possible for the Austrians to be influenced by anti-Semitism and the Israelis to be driven purely by commercial considerations. The opposite seems less likely. All one can say for sure is that three-and-a-half years ought to be enough time for any prosecutor to decide whether to bring charges.
Although Meinl has complained about all this to the European Court of Human Rights, he is not accusing the Austrians of religious discrimination. But that was the basis of four claims against the British government that the court heard in early September.
Two of the applicants complained that they had not been allowed to wear crucifixes with their work uniforms. The two other Christians, who sought compensation for the loss of their jobs, included Lilian Ladele, a former registrar of births, deaths and marriages whose employer had subsequently required her to register civil partnerships. Dinah Rose QC argued that Ladele had suffered unjustified indirect discrimination by being treated in the same way as colleagues with no conscientious objections to granting same-sex unions formal legal recognition.
But James Eadie QC, for the UK government, reminded the court that article 9 of the Human Rights Convention does not create an absolute right to manifest one's religion. Case law had established that employers could not be forced to change the employment terms of staff who were unwilling, on religious grounds, to provide services to a section of the public.
"If an employer requires or prohibits conduct while at work that individual employees consider inconsistent with their religious beliefs, there is no interference with article 9 [in circumstances] where they can obtain alternative employment in which they can practise their religion as they wish," Eadie said. So long as people were not excluded from work or denied public services because of their religious practices, there was no interference with article 9. And if there was no breach of article 9, he added, there was no breach of article 14 — which requires rights under the convention to be secured without discrimination. None of the applicants was able to refute that assessment of the law. So I would be surprised if the court finds, probably next year, in favour of any of them. Nor do I think it should.
After arguing in the Law Society Gazette that we should respect the rights of those with religious convictions so long as those beliefs do not conflict with the rights of others, I was accused by readers of favouring bigotry, prejudice and even racism.
I do not. I support coexistence and compromise. Staff rightly cannot insist on time off for religious observances. But employers will be all the poorer if they refuse to employ people of faith.